How massacre on the Strip could change police tactics
Las Vegas
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North-bound lanes of Las Vegas Blvd. remain closed Tuesday Oct. 3, 2017, due to the ongoing investigation of Sunday night’s mass shooting during the Route 91 Festival.

A trained sharpshooter firing from atop the University of Texas Tower in 1966 introduced many Americans to mass casualty attacks, but almost all of the large-scale shootings since then — including Sandy Hook and Orlando — have taken place at ground level with the gunman killing from relatively close range.

One result: Even as mass shootings became more frequent and police departments expanded training on how to confront a gunman, officers were typically coached on close-quarters assaults taking place on the first couple of floors of schools, shopping malls and office buildings.

Then came Sunday night, when a gunman, identified as Stephen Paddock, opened fire from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel, targeting a crowd at a concert some 500 yards away. At least 59 people were killed and about 500 others injured.

Former and current law enforcement chiefs and other experts predicted that Sunday’s shooting would alter the training at many police forces to include more of a focus on the threat posed by high-rise snipers or others who kill from long distances.

“This is a paradigm shift,” said John Urquhart, the sheriff of King County, Washington, which includes Seattle.

While police departments will continue to train for mass shootings that follow the more common pattern where the gunman is fairly close to his victims, Urquhart said that the Las Vegas attack might have an impact similar to the 1999 Columbine massacre.

That shooting led departments to retrain patrol officers to be prepared to confront a gunman if the killing was still occurring instead of waiting for a SWAT team.

But the options for taking down high-rise snipers armed with assault-style weapons are limited, said Urquhart, who added that his department has not focused on such threats to date because mass shootings have followed a different pattern.

Instead, he said his department has largely concentrated its mass-shooting training on schools and smaller structures. There are no easy solutions for stopping someone who is firing from a high elevation, like the Las Vegas gunman, he added.

“How are we going to evolve our tactics to take out that shooter? I’m not sure there is a way to do that, quite frankly,” Urquhart said. “My guess is that the best and quickest way to get him is to go up the stairs and take him out like he was on the first floor.”

Some larger, urban departments already train for an elevated gunman, said Mark Lomax, who handled training for the Pennsylvania State Police and later was executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association.

After the Las Vegas massacre, “there is going to be a lot more emphasis on out-of-reach situations, whether from a high-rise tower or a bridge,” said Lomax, who is now chief executive of Lancer Cobbs, a consulting firm near Philadelphia.

The University of Texas shooting, in which Charles Whitman killed 15 people and wounded at least 31 more using a stockpile of rifles, handguns and a shotgun before the police reached the top of the tower and killed him, was not the only previous high-rise shooting of significance.

In 1976, Michael Soles killed three people and wounded eight others from the 26th floor of a Holiday Inn in Wichita, Kansas; he could have shot more had it not been for a quick response that ended the carnage after 11 minutes. Police officers wounded Soles, who was later found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

When many of today’s police and SWAT commanders were in academy training decades ago, the Texas shooting was part of the curriculum.

“Studying that incident shows you how devastating someone who has the high ground can be with weapons like that,” said Ed Davis, the Boston police commissioner from 2006 to 2013, who was taught details of the Whitman shooting as a recruit.

As mass shootings became bloodier and more frequent, departments trained for the threats as they evolved, whether they were shootings in schools, like Columbine High in Colorado, where 13 people were killed, and Virginia Tech, where 32 were killed in 2007, or in restaurants like Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, where 23 died in 1991, and the McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, where 21 were killed in 1984.

“The process we learn is iterative; you learn things more and more as they happen,” said Davis, who now runs a Boston security consultancy.

Like Urquhart, Davis said there were no simple options for eliminating a heavily armed, high-rise sniper. One issue is simply locating the gunman. Officers entering the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on Sunday in Las Vegas, where Paddock was holed up, initially struggled to figure out what floor he was on.

Nor will it be easy for some hotels to look for potential red flags among their guests, Lomax said. “In a place like Las Vegas, which is one giant hotel, with the volume of traffic that goes in and out, forget about it,” he said.

Defeating a gunman firing from an elevated position is always harder. “When you have the high ground, the people trying to get to you are disadvantaged,” said Ronal Serpas, the former police chief in New Orleans and Nashville who is a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Ordering sharpshooters to fire on a high-rise from a distance could also mean shooting into a room containing hostages, a concern that would have to be weighed against the risk of continuing carnage by the sniper. “You can’t have a bunch of cops on the ground shooting up with their patrol rifles,” Urquhart said.

Davis said: “Firing rounds from one building into another is extremely dangerous. It’s not a decision I’d want to make.”

Some experts already fear that other potential gunman, having seen the devastation in Las Vegas, will try similar tactics.

“Almost every school shooter since Columbine has made reference to Columbine. We know they study one another,” said Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea of the Arvada Police Department in Colorado, who was on a SWAT team for 16 years, part of that time as the team leader, and was part of the law enforcement response to Columbine and two other school shootings.

“This could lead to a copycat syndrome, and we’d be remiss if we don’t find ways to address it,” he said.

Like the Columbine attack, the Las Vegas shooting could lead to tactical changes for patrol officers, who could be called on to take longer-range shots at a gunman in a high-rise or otherwise far away, DeAndrea said.

This could mean greater marksmanship training for some patrolmen, as well as equipping patrol cars with longer-range rifles that have powerful scopes and which fire higher-caliber bullets, like the .308, that are less likely to miss a faraway target because of the wind, he said.

“I do think it’s a watershed moment,” DeAndrea said. “We all have to sit down and realize what’s next. There are a lot of guys sitting up at night thinking, ‘This could happen in my city; how are we are going to address it?'”

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